Baker Mayfield’s flag-planting, coach-grabbing antics didn’t knock the Browns off their pursuit of him. They ignored his height, did their homework on an off-field arrest and cross-checked his character.
Mayfield passed all the tests.
After months of dissection and debate, the Browns selected Mayfield, Oklahoma’s cocky and charismatic quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft on Thursday, a somewhat surprising selection by a team that figured to play it safe with such an important decision.
But coming off a 0-16 season, the Browns are betting that Mayfield is a better player than USC’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen or UCLA’s Josh Rosen, a talented group regarded as the top QB class in years.
They’re also confident he won’t be a headache like Manziel, who fizzled out in two party-filled seasons with Cleveland.
“In doing all of our research with Baker Mayfield, he has earned it, from high school, to college, he has earned it,” Browns general manager John Dorsey said. “I have no qualms whatsoever about him as a man or as a football player.”
The Browns followed Mayfield’s selection with another surprise, using the No. 4 pick on Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward. Cleveland was thought to be high on North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb or Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, but they instead opted for the speedy Ward, who skipped his senior season with the Buckeyes to turn pro.
Mayfield understands the Manziel comparisons, and the 23-year-old knows there are Cleveland fans who see him as Johnny Football 2.0.
However, Mayfield insists he’s his own man.
“Johnny and I are two completely different people,” Mayfield said on a conference call from his home in Austin, Texas. “That’s nothing against him, but what I’ve been able to do is be upfront and honest about who I am during these meetings. I’m confident that I showed that with this coaching staff and with the management throughout this process.
“But for me moving forward it’s just being myself. I’m not going to go out and try and prove I’m not Johnny, I’m going to be myself and in the end that’s going to take care of the rest.”
When Dorsey called Mayfield and asked him, “Let me ask you a question, you want to be the first pick in the draft?” Mayfield broke down and cried.
Mayfield said he became emotional after looking around at people who stuck with him through good and bad.
“It just kind of brought out all of the emotions of the tough times that we went through and the good ones,” he said. “To think about it all there in that moment, it was going to be a fresh start, and it was a whole lot of emotion packed into one phone call.”
At Oklahoma, he was college football’s top player last season, passing for 4,627 yards, 43 touchdowns and winning the Heisman last season. But his size (he’s just over 6-foot), and the questions about his character following a 2017 arrest in Arkansas and some on-field antics — a flag planting at Ohio State and lewd gesture at Kansas — seemed to eliminate him from being picked first.
But as Dorsey, coach Hue Jackson and others in Cleveland’s organization spent more time with him, the Browns became convinced that he’s the one who can finally end their long search for a franchise quarterback. Cleveland has started 28 QBs since 1999.
“My faith says every man deserves a second chance,” Dorsey said. “Young men do certain things. We all learn from our mistakes. I like the guy. I have no problems with a young man making mistakes and moving forward.”
Mayfield, who went 33-6 in games he started (he sat out the first quarter of his final game with a suspension) is the fifth quarterback taken in the first round by the Browns in their expansion era — and first since Manziel.
And although he may be Cleveland’s quarterback of the future, the present belongs to Tyrod Taylor, who was acquired during the offseason in a trade from Buffalo. Jackson has already named Taylor as his starter in 2018, and the plan is for Mayfield to develop as a backup.
For now, Mayfield is going along with it.
“That’s a veteran that’s been in the league,” he said. “He’s a guy that I could sit behind and learn from. For me, when I say those type of things, it’s because I’m competitive. If I came in with the mindset of just being happy I got drafted and just to settle for a backup job, that wouldn’t be myself.”
This is the second straight year the Browns have picked first. Cleveland addressed a major defensive need and selected defensive end Myles Garrett with the first overall pick in 2017.
Dorsey revamped his secondary with a trade and three free-agent signings. But he was missing a shutdown cornerback and believes he’s got one now in Ward, a Cleveland kid who feels he’s ready to help his hometown team win.
“I’m very confident in my ability and I look forward to that pressure,” Ward said. “Being at Ohio State, there was pressure all the time there. Everybody was on edge there. It’s kind of nothing new having the pressure on me.”
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